Proper 9, Year C
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
This week, I'm going to build on my entry from three years ago -- Proper 9, Year C in 2004. There's a great deal more that can be said about this passage, but one of the points I emphasized three years ago has struck me afresh in a slightly different way, and it stems from the question of why the number of apostles sent in this Sunday's gospel is significant.
And I'd like to start, as I did in 2004, by noting that this passage is one of many excellent reasons we shouldn't talk about "the twelve disciples," as if there were only twelve of them, or "the twelve apostles," as if the Twelve were the only ones Jesus sent out (which is what "apostle" means -- "one sent" by another as messenger, ambassador, or agent). The group of Jesus' followers and the group of those sent out by Jesus in his ministry prior to his death and resurrection included women as well as men; Luke 8:1, among other texts, goes out of its way to point out that Jesus' followers depended upon women among them as patrons and leaders. Luke and Acts make clear that the Twelve did not serve any function of governance for the church. Indeed, most of the Twelve aren't portrayed as prominent leaders among the disciples or the early church. The gospels don't even agree on their names -- just on there being twelve of them -- much as there are twelve baskets of leftovers from the "feeding of the five thousand," as Luke is careful to show in tandem with Jesus' sending the Twelve out on a mission in chapter 9 of his gospel.
Twelve, as in the twelve tribes of Israel. It's a number representing all of Israel. Jesus' choosing twelve men to represent the twelve patriarchs of Israel shows his authority to reconstitute and restore the people of Israel. Jesus' feeding five (the number of books in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses that all Israel accepted as scripture) thousand and there being enough fragments of bread to fill twelve baskets brings to mind the sojourn of God's people in the desert as the Hebrews were freed from the "narrow place" (as I blogged three years ago, that's what Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, means) of slavery and formed as a people, God's people. And much as the blessing of God's manna in the wilderness was of such abundance that none had need to hoard and all of God's people were fed, Jesus proclaims God's blessing on Creation such that all are fed with enough leftovers to feed all Israel all over again. Twelve baskets, twelve sent out.
This week, there are seventy sent out. Seventy, like the number of books in the Septuagint -- the translation of the wider collection of books the Pharisees, our spiritual ancestors as Christians, accepted as scripture, including the prophetic books such as Isaiah, into Greek so that the whole known world around the Mediterranean could hear the word of the God of Israel. Seventy, like the number of elders chosen to share Moses' spirit of prophesy and burden of leadership (Numbers 11:16-17). Seventy, like the number of times time seven that Jesus' followers are to forgive. Seventy, a number of completion, of wholeness.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus sends out seventy as workers for the harvest, to proclaim that God's rein has arrived, that the accuser of humanity has fallen. Jesus sends out seventy -- a number of fullness and wholeness -- to exercise authority over every spirit and every condition that oppresses God's children. I wish we included the whole passage through verse 24 in our lectionaries, so we could hear in worship the words that "I tell you, many prophets and kings desired to see the things you are seeing, and they did not see, and to hear the things you are hearing, but did not hear it."
I wish that we read those words because, as folks who were at the U2charist in Michigan a couple of weeks ago know, it has been pressed on my heart that we who are alive now are privileged with a particular opportunity, a particular resonance to Jesus words that "today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." We have an opportunity to see the end of extreme poverty, of people living on less than a dollar of day, of a child dying every three seconds of easily preventable diseases. We have an opportunity by 2015, in our lifetime, to see an end to suffering we're used to thinking of as infinite if we can bear to think of it at all. The Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs), people call it, the campaign to Make Poverty History, the ONE campaign. They don't entirely encompass the scope of God's mission, of the reach of God's limitless love for the world, but they're an excellent milestone on God's way of offering Good News for the poor. God's mission includes even more than the Millennium Development Goals -- so pay attention, anyone who (unlike many of the world's leading economists) thinks those are too ambitious! -- but they're a timely, if modest, expression of Good News for the poor, and Jesus' sending of the Seventy should give heart to those of us who want to hear what prophets and kings have desired to hear, those of us who want to experience firsthand a taste of the banquet on offer when "the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
Because as much as we might be tempted to say that it would have been sufficient (I can't help but echo the Passover dayenu when I think of Jesus, Luke's "prophet like Moses," leading exodus from every "narrow place") for Christ to empower the Twelve, the tribes of Israel, to do what God is doing in the world, Christ empowers the Seventy. Those who read to the end of Luke's gospel and through part II of it, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, know that even more is to come, because God is granting Moses' wish, "would it were that all God's people were prophets," Joel's vision of the Spirit poured out upon all flesh.
And all God's people should pay attention, because this concerns us all. Those sent out aren't a tiny group of guys in bathrobes. It's all God's people. It's you and me, sisters and brothers, and everyone who will hear the call, as the workers are few indeed compared to the abundance of the harvest. Luke begins the story of Jesus' public ministry with Jesus' version of a 'mission statement,' delivered to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
An ambitious mission statement, Christ's mission on earth. And we are the Body of Christ. Christ's mission is the mission we are called to engage in, as we are in Christ. So I'd like to say to y'all what I said to folks in Michigan a couple of weeks ago, one of the things I say to anyone who will listen whenever I have opportunity to say it when I'm awake in a context in which I think it could bear fruit:
Put this on your bathroom mirror to see when you brush your teeth at night and in the morning. Stick it on a post-it on your car's dashboard. Put it in your wallet to see whenever you pull out a credit card or some cash. Because you are a member of the Body of Christ, and Christ's mission statement is for you.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring Good News to the poor.
Impossible? Under ordinary reckonings of human capacity, I guess so. But for the Body of Christ, the mission for which Christ was anointed cannot be impossible. In Baptism, you were made part of Christ's very Body on earth. The Spirit with which Christ was anointed has been poured out -- not just on the Twelve, not just on seventy, but on the whole of God's people.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed YOU to bring Good News to the poor. And nothing is impossible with God's Spirit.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I often, and especially on Sundays like this coming one, find myself musing about the practice of Baptizing infants and small children. I'm supportive of families who do choose to Baptize their children; I believe that God often works through the intentions of families and congregations expressed in their preparation for and participation in Baptizing a child. I also think it's remarkable and quite sad that the decision to Baptize a child is so often made at least initially with more thoughts about pretty gowns and celebration with relatives than about the sign of the Cross that will be made on the child's forehead as the child is told, "you are sealed and marked as Christ's own forever."
Baptism is serious stuff.
Take Jesus' baptism, for example. We read about it during worship this week in a manner that mostly isolates that event from the context in which it takes place in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark's wording is particularly striking, as "immediately" after Jesus is baptized by John, Mark says, "the Spirit drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness." The verb Mark uses is ekballo -- the same word used of what happens to demons in exorcism.
Matthew and Luke tone that verb down, but still make clear that Jesus' baptism gives him not only a vision of God declaring him to be a beloved son, but also a vocation -- one that places him in conflict with spiritual adversaries, the powers that seek to enslave us, dividing us from one another and from God, and with very human adversaries, rulers and others who benefit from that oppressive order and fragmentation. And if the gospels present Jesus as in some ways being like the Baptizer but greater, John's execution at Herod's orders indicate the kind of dangers Jesus faces as he steps forward into public ministry empowered by his baptism.
It's not just about Jesus' baptism either. The book of Acts links Baptism in the Holy Spirit with great spiritual power, and also makes clear that the Spirit's power comes with conflicts with worldly authorities and worldly values. And yet we choose to Baptize our children, marking them with the otherness that marked Jesus, placing them on the path of the Cross. Indeed, we do it joyfully -- all the more joyfully, I'd argue, when we do it with eyes wide open to the challenges ahead of those who, like the Baptized child, have been set on the way of the Cross. Why?
I believe that joy in a Baptism chosen with eyes and heart wide open comes from being in touch with the audacious vision of God's dream for humanity, in which we participate as Baptized members of the Body of Christ. When we are immersed in and excited about what God is doing in the world, the challenges that arise from those who prefer the world order in which the poor, the sick, and those marked as 'other' stay on the margins can be seen for what they are -- the last gasps of an oppressive order that is passing away.
That's one reason I love the ways in which people of faith have embraced the vision of the Millennium Development Goals. It's a vision that's audacious and ambitious, yet meant to be realized in our hearing, in this generation -- and one I'll definitely be touching on in great depth, as Luke 4 is coming up soon in the lectionary. I hope it will suffice for now to note that when we talk about what it is we take on as our vocation when we are sealed with the weighty sign of Baptism into Christ, it includes taking on participation in Jesus' mission, that when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord (which is the most central confession of Baptism), we are investing our very lives -- body, psyche, and spirit, as well as any resources and gifts we have or will gain to offer -- in the mission of ordering the world God made such that it looks like what we say is true: that Jesus is Lord.
In other words, in Baptism we pledge our whole selves to ordering not only our lives, but to the best of our ability, the world in which we live in harmony with the reign or kingdom of God -- that is, what the world looks like when Jesus' lordship is fully consummated. And what does that look like? This Sunday prompts us to look at Jesus' baptism as a frame through which we might see what that moment might look like through the lens of Christian Baptism.
Jesus' baptism provided him with clarity about his purpose and his message. In Luke's terms, that message is about the realization of Isaiah's prophetic vision -- not in some distant future, not as something to be wished for idly or prayed for in pious passivity, but as present reality. The Good News of the present vindication of the poor, of release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the jubilee year of God's favor is more and more for here and now as "this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). As the apostles live into the ministry of their Baptism, Luke characterizes their ministry similarly. Their testimony to Jesus is validated by their making real among one another what Jesus proclaimed:
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:33-35)
I ache to know what the world would look like if all of Christ's apostles today saw this as the economy -- which, not incidentally, is our adoption of the Greek work oikonomia, or household management -- of the household of God's people. And "apostles" is NOT (especially not in Luke's writings) a word designating twelve guys who lived in Palestine over two thousand years ago; "apostle" means "one sent," and every person Baptized into Christ is sent forth in Christ's name. If you're waiting for the church's permission to function as an apostle and the Baptismal Covenant doesn't seem to be enough, just wait until the end of the service, and a deacon (or someone functioning as one) will commission you as an apostle:
Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
That's said, and you're sent. You and I, the Baptized, are sent forth, designated as apostles of Jesus Christ, sent to proclaim the new life of Christ Jesus not just with empty words, but with power -- with deeds that change lives, with the offering of all that we have and all that we are. That's appropriate enough for the Baptized. When we were Baptized, what part of us was left untouched? None. When we seek to follow Jesus, what part of us is reserved for someone else's cause? None. And when we are following Jesus with all we are, what part of us -- indeed, what part of our world -- will be left untouched and not transformed fully by grace? None.
That, I believe with all my heart, is why it's worth everything that we pledge when we are Baptized, when we Baptize our children, when we reaffirm our Baptismal vows. It's worth it all because it is more than the "all" we humanly thought possible; it is embracing the telos or "end" for which the Word was breathed and all things made in the beginning. It is the imagining that will stretch our imaginations for as long as eternal life lives.
I admit that hear often from a few people that most members of their congregations have no interest in stretching their imaginations in this way, that most are perfectly satisfied with their lives and the world exactly as they are. I have to say that this does not at all match my pastoral experience in the wealthiest, most privileged, most "secure," and most "successful" of congregations any more than it matches my experience in ministry with the homeless. There are a great many people in our culture who are by most measures wealthy, but who are tremendously economically insecure -- in a house that cost far more than they could comfortably afford, but that seemed necessary to buy given how good the schools in that neighborhood were in contrast to the terrible state of public schools in poorer neighborhoods not so far away. They are one paycheck away from disaster, and they know it; if one person in the family gets sick, if there's some unforeseen disaster in a single industry, if the wrong person gets elected or promoted or one rotten stroke of luck, it feels like everything will be ruined. The adults and children feel it almost equally, even if neither ever names or talks about it. And then there are the other kinds of disasters that our culture threatens us with seemingly at every turn. Perhaps it's more a function of child and adolescent literacy than of anything else, but I'm not convinced that's it -- I have never seen more cultural artefacts of anxiety from the young of any culture I've studied than I have when listening to the voices of young people in affluent communities today.
On some level, I think that we all know that the world as our worldly powers have ordered it is not working, is not giving the human family abundant life as we were created and still ache for.
And I believe this is part of the Good News of our Baptism. If some part of you believes that the world as it is on the front page of the newspaper is not the world as it was meant to be, you're not crazy and you're not just a starry-eyed idealist; you are feeling God's call in Baptism. If some part of you wants something more than the chance to achieve enough to feel pressured to achieve more or to defend what you thought you won, you're not just greedy or lazy or odd; you're feeling God's call in Baptism. And if you feel at times that the world and the life you're aching for is more than you could bring into being by your own achievement, even if you wanted it only for yourself and those you care about (and who can restrict caring to just a few?), you haven't run into the thing that makes the dream impossible; you just might be hearing the call of Baptism.
Baptism, after all, is not just about you. Not by a long shot. Luke, after telling us about Jesus' baptism, immediately gives us that most genre of lectionary readings most dreaded by lectors: the geneology. He tells us how Jesus is connected, via saints and sinners (and aren't they all some of both?), via the famous and obscure, to all humanity. And like Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us of the vision Jesus had in Baptism that empowered him to face what he faced in the desert and in the crowds, whether enthusiastic or angry: he heard God's call to intimacy as God's beloved child. There were many things about Jesus that were unique, but Jesus' intimate relationship with God as we hear in this story of his baptism was not one of them; it's something that God has offered to all of God's beloved children from the beginning. It's the call and the promise that Isaiah sang of along with those audacious visions of what the world could be, that in the midst of the world as it is, we could hear God say:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I pray that this Sunday and every day, all those gathered to hear God's word can hear that word, can receive the truth of God's presence to empower us as ones sent to live into the truth of God's reign.
Thanks be to God!
Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
Luke 3:7-18 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday's gospel is in many respects about conversion -- who needs it, what it looks like, and why do it -- and what it meant to John the Baptizer. It's what John was best known for. His nickname of "the Baptizer" came from a remarkable idea he had: namely, that everyone needs to be baptized.
It wasn't at all remarkable that he baptized people; most Jewish movements did. Baptism was one of the things that a person had to undergo to convert to Judaism. What was wild in John's ministry was that he said that Jews were just as much in need of his baptism as anyone else would be. That's what he was teaching when he said, "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham," and it's got a number of potentially radical implications.
The first is that bloodlines have absolutely no relevance in God's mission. God is not going to be confined by our boundaries between one family and another or one nation and another, however important we might think they are. This is not the order of the world as we've run it when we've managed to talk ourselves into thinking we're in charge, and it challenges us to re-imagine what the world looks like as God's work among us is realized.
Take a look, for example, at this report from Oxfam on how corporations from the world's wealthiest nations are leveraging their power in their home countries to negotiate international trade agreements that are even more to their advantage, putting farmers, fishers, and others in poorer countries out of business. Consider for a moment how the wealth of the three richest FAMILIES in the world exceeds the gross domestic product of the poorest 48 COUNTRIES in the world. We have ordered the world such that accidents of birth -- in which country or which family a child is born -- often determine whether that child will live to see adulthood. Do we think that our country, our family is so much more highly esteemed in God's eyes than others' are? Or are we willing to "bear fruits worthy of repentance"? God doesn't want our liberal guilt or our good intentions; God wants us to love the world's children as we love our own children.
That will require us to make a choice, and that's the second point I take from John's teaching on conversion. I believe that Christian Baptism does indeed seal and mark a person as Christ's own forever. That doesn't lessen the truth that we are called to a kind of conversion, to a metanoia or repentance, that is a personal choice. We can choose whether to identify Jesus as Lord of our lives, and how we choose to live testifies to what choice we have made on that point. You can choose to Baptize your children, but you can't make the choice for them to follow Christ.
Up to this last point, what I've said about the implications of John's teaching lines of well with what Jesus taught. But Jesus and John didn't agree on everything, or we wouldn't see what we do in Luke 7:18-35, in which messengers from John the Baptizer go to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus is doing enough of what John expected from the coming "mighty one" for John not to have completely abandoned hope in him, but his behavior is raising enough questions that John feels the need to send messengers to ask them.
This Sunday's gospel tells us what John is expecting that Jesus isn't doing. John says that the coming mighty one will baptize "with the Holy Spirit and fire," a phrase that we often gloss over, but is worth paying closer attention to. In the Baptizer's usage, "the Holy Spirit and fire" are not two ways of saying the same thing or an extended reference to what will happen at Pentecost.
We can tell that from the rest of what the Baptizer says about the coming one: his "winnowing shovel is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Your translation probably says (as the NRSV does) that it's a "winnowing fork," but this is not supportable; as Robert L. Webb points out, the Greek word is ptuon, which always refers to the winnowing shovel, not the fork.
This actually makes a significant difference in how we read the Baptizer's expectations. A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel is what you use after someone else has done their work with the fork and the wheat and chaff are already separated to do what John says the coming one will do: "gather the wheat into his granary," while "the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus is only fulfilling half of what John says the mighty one coming would do: he's baptizing with the Holy Spirit and gathering people for healing, good news, and blessing, but the fire to destroy the wicked is nowhere to be seen.
John the Baptizer calls everyone to conversion so they may avoid destruction when the name-taking and butt-kicking starts. Jesus' response of "Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me" (Luke 7:23) to the Baptizer's pleas to bring on the fire of judgment against the wicked challenges John himself to a kind of conversion. In Jesus' ministry, John is invited to rejoice at what God is doing in the world, and to let go of what God is not doing, to release his preconceptions and take in the reality of God's presence and work.
How the Baptizer responded to that invitation isn't recorded. At least some of his followers remained disappointed in Jesus and attached to the Baptizer's idea that God's mighty one wasn't going to issue any more invitations to conversion, but would simply pour out God's blessings on the righteous and rain destruction on the wicked. Movements following the Baptizer and proclaiming such immanent judgment continued for centuries after his death, suggesting that John received Jesus' reply with sadness not unlike that of the rich ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The more we have, the harder it is to give it up, and John the Baptizer had a vast store of hope poured into his expectations of the coming one. He'd sacrificed so much already -- the comforts of home and family, his freedom, and soon his life -- it may be that sacrificing his expectations was one last sacrifice he couldn't make.
Jesus seemed to anticipate that as he said that while "among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God" -- including a prostitutes or tax collector who had received John's Baptism -- is greater than he" (Luke 7:28). And even in saying that, Jesus' ministry issues an invitation in profound continuity with the one John issued to all those who would hear -- an invitation to repentance and conversion.
We need to hear that invitation. It isn't about getting in to God's good graces or avoiding God's judgment -- in Jesus' ministry, God is already extending grace and suspending judgment before we ask. It's about living into the fullness of that grace. We are invited to make our decision to follow Jesus, and that invitation comes not just once for a lifetime but in every moment we live. Jesus is born anew among us whenever two or three gather in his name. Jesus is at work among us wherever the poor, the sick, and the marginalized are received and find healing and power for new life. And when we keep our eyes, ears, mind, and heart open to receive God's good news, we see it finding flesh in our world in places and in ways as surprising and challenging as they are joyous.
Let's not begin to talk to ourselves about our impressive spiritual pedigree when the very one for whom our ancestors longed and hoped is coming again among us. Let's not presume to draw limits around what God can accomplish and with whom. Let's not measure God's good news of peace according to our own preconceptions when the most certain word we have of it is that it "surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). Our conversion didn't end with Baptism; that's just where it began, and it ends only where God's love for us does. In other words, it doesn't end. Expect God's coming; expect the unexpected!
And thanks be to God!
December 14, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Baptism, Christian Formation, Conversion, Discipleship, Eschatology, Luke, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Philippians, Prophets, Repentance, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)
Trinity Sunday, Year B
Those of you who plan to tackle the doctrine of the Trinity this Sunday might want to check out my sermon from Trinity Sunday in 2003, and I've blogged about this Sunday's gospel here and penned a lectionary reflection on it for The Witness here. I'm grateful for this Sunday's selection of readings, though, as the reading from Romans works particularly well with John 3. The point of being "born from above" or "born again" in John's gospel is not what those of us from individualistic cultures tend to emphasize when we talk about it, namely the chance for an individual to have a new beginning.
To be sure, Christ does offer new beginnings, new life, the possibility of real and important change for the individual. I wouldn't want to lose that; it can be a healing and liberating word in cultures like mine. If I had doubts before, the teenager who commented on the "Finger-paining and Forgiveness" post on Grace Notes, my personal blog, would have dispelled them. I'd posted about an activity I did with the high school youth group at the last parish I worked in. That activity was in part my answer to another activity that's often done in youth groups, usually in a "True Love Waits" context to encourage teenagers not to have sex. What happens is that the group is broken up into teams, with each team getting a tube of toothpaste, a paper plate, and some toothpicks. The teams are then told to race to see who can get all the toothpaste out of the tube first. Once that's done, the teams are told they must race to see who can get the toothpaste back in the tube using the toothpicks. It's a hopeless task, of course, and once the teams give up, the youth group leader shouts, "Aha! And neither can you get your sexual purity back once you've given it away!" It's my opinion that this activity -- especially if the application is about sex -- is awful. I don't think that leaders build trust when even in a game they ask people to do something they don't really want or expect to be done. More importantly, I think the message of the activity slights God's power to redeem. Instead, my youth group did an activity where we each wrote (symbols and such were fine, as it was only for the writer's eyes) one or more arenas in which we'd like to see God's transformation and healing. We offered those with the general confession, and burned them. That much wasn't new to the group. But then we took that ash, and stirred it into some tubs of white finger paint, and the group was invited to use that and all of the other colors to make a mural. At first, the group was reluctant ("yuck -- we have to use the ashy gloppy stuff too?"), but they plunged in with vigor. And what they found is that the "icky gloppy stuff," when incorporated into a larger picture with other colors, other textures, other ideas from a larger supportive community, wasn't icky any more. And we talked about redemption and what it means to us.
I believe that God is working that kind of redemption in us individually as we journey with a community seeking God. And yes, I believe the "born again/born from above" talk in John 3 does bring in some of that kind of redemption. But like the "Finger-painting and Forgiveness" activity, John's language of rebirth has its greatest power, I think, because it's about incorporation into something larger than ourselves. Because although God loves us with as much intensity as God would if each one of us were the only person in the world to love, God in God's love sets us in community. When we are "born from above," we are born into a family of faith, with God as our father and mother, Christ as our eldest brother, and with countless others beloved by God as our sisters and brothers.
This transformation isn't without cost: being "born from above" into the family of faith renders all other ties of blood or nationality irrelevant, and in a culture that says "God, mom, and apple pie" in the same breath, taking Jesus' word seriously can make a person seem eccentric at best and dangerously antisocial at worst. Being "born from above" dislocates us from the network of relationships we were born into in flesh and blood. But God doesn't just dislocate; God relocates us in a new network of relationships -- sometimes even with the same people. We can see our families not just as a set of cultural obligations or a path to respectability, and we don't have to relate to one another in the rigidly constructed ways our culture might dictate. We are invited to relate to others, whether related to us by blood or not, as sisters and brothers, beloved children of the same loving God.
Take that deeply in, and you'll find much more transformed than just your inward disposition. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother, and you'll feel personally swept up in wanting each one fed, given clean water, an education, decent health care, a real chance in life. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother in a family of faith following Jesus, and you'll find yourself with genuine desire and taking pleasure in coming closer to the kind of free and full interchange of every gift to which you have access that characterizes the communion of the Trinity.
That's bound to transform your life, your outlook, your heart, your mind. But that's not all. The global fellowship of those living more deeply into that network of relationships characteristic of those "born from above" will transform the world, as questions of what is most loving for others become central even with respect to our sisters and brothers we've never met, those in generations to come and across the globe. That's revolutionary -- and that's Christ's gift to us in an eternal life that starts NOW.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday in Lent, Year B
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
It sounds fairly dry and matter-of-fact, doesn't it? But there's a lot going on between the lines. Jesus' home and family are in Nazareth of Galilee, and Jesus isn't. This isn't 21st-century white and middle-class America, when adults are expected to leave home to go to college, travel if they can afford it, and find their way in the world alone. It's first-century Palestine, and the decent thing for Jesus to do, by conventional standards would be for him to stay in Nazareth and look after his mother (and his father, if he's alive -- the gospels' silence about Joseph after Jesus' childhood suggests to some that he may have died) until they died, and to make sure they got an honorable burial. That would be the decent thing for a son to do.
The normal thing for a man to do in Jesus' culture, especially for a spiritual leader, would be to stay in Nazareth, marry, and have children -- preferably including at least one son to carry on the family name. That's true even more within most branches of first-century Judaism, in which “be fruitful and multiply” was seen as a binding command from God, not a vague expression of good wishes.
But Jesus didn't do either of those things. Had he married and had children (as the FICTIONAL book The Da Vinci Code suggests), his disciples would have been shouting that from the rooftops, not trying to conceal it -- “Our guy WAS a real man and a good Jew!” But his followers didn't say that, and the best historical explanation for that is that, embarrassing as it was to say that Jesus died having never married or had children, there was just no escaping the fact.
Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus left his home -- abandoned his family, they would say in the village -- on a spiritual quest.
We have now entered the desert of Lent on a spiritual quest of our own. Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time -- chocolate, beer, swearing, or somesuch -- drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as 'good,' and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we're on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered a desert with wild beasts and angels (and I don't know about you, but I suspect that the reason that the first thing out of an angel's mouth is “don't be afraid!” is that angels are often at least as terrifying as wild beasts), and we are striving to follow him.
That sounds lonely as well as terrifying. How on earth could we do it? Why on earth would we do it?
I think that this Sunday's gospel provides a clue. Jesus enters that desert as a man who is discovering his Baptismal identity, taking it in fully and acting on what he hears from God in Baptism. Jesus has no family where he is -- but in Baptism, God calls Jesus his beloved son, and Jesus hears God say, “with you I am well pleased.”
That means that Jesus has a family. His family by blood is going to come after him to drag him home as a crazy man who's bringing shaming the family name (Mark 2:21), but in Baptism, Jesus has mother and sisters and brothers in whoever does God's will (Mark 3:32-35). Jesus is leaving house and tools, but he will find shelter with others seeking God and God's reign. Jesus is not alone on his journey, and neither are we.
We have one another, and we also have something else on our journey: the opportunity to encounter God as Jesus did, to take in deeply God's word to us that we are God's beloved children, to claim that identity as the central one or maybe even the only one we have.
I don't think that Jesus spent his life after his Baptism trying to figure out what a good person, a good teacher, a good friend, a good leader would say or do and then trying to say or do that. I believe that Jesus sought the living God, claimed his identity as God's child, and let his life, his words, his relationships, and his love, even to giving of himself on the cross, flow from that identity as God's beloved.
Perhaps that's what God is calling me to do this Lenten season: to follow Jesus into that desert to listen deeply for what God has to say to me through my Baptism. And if that's God's call, those wild beasts won't destroy anything worth keeping. Mr. Beaver said of Aslan, “he isn't tame, but he's good,” and I believe that's true of God as well. I want to be alive in the spirit, as Jesus was, and that's a good enough reason to follow Jesus. If God is there, I won't be alone.
And besides, you're coming too, aren't you?
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord, Year B
First off, I apologize for the delay in getting this up -- I was without a computer this week until today. Sure is good to be online again!
The delay before I got my own trusty PowerBook back was such that I got a chance to do something unusual for me. Before I wrote my own lectionary reflection, I edited another -- Jeff Krantz's wonderful “The God Who Is For Us” in The Witness. Jeff drew my attention once more to something that commentators often note about Mark 1 -- namely the tie between Jesus' Baptism and his Passion, made by Mark's use of schizomai in just two places -- Mark 1:10's “the heavens torn apart” and Mark 15:38's “the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”
I think it's healthy and helpful to have Baptism connected so clearly with the cross on a Sunday when so many will be baptized. After all, the way to which we are committed in Baptism is Jesus' way -- the way of the cross as well as the way of Jesus' resurrected life. I find reflecting on that particularly poignant when infants and young children are baptized. What parent among us would at our child's birth commit him or her to a lifetime in the military? But the Baptismal covenant is in many respects an even more profound and potentially costly commitment. It takes a lot of something -- guts, faith, or both -- to commit our children to that path, and to commit ourselves to equip and encourage them on it.
It's a counter-cultural path, as is clear from Isaiah's description:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
As Christians, we hold that Jesus is God's servant, in whom God delights, and our collection of readings for this Sunday invite us to make that connection with the vision at Jesus' Baptism in which it is revealed that he is God's own child in whom God is well pleased. But Isaiah saw all of God's people as “the servant of the Lord” -- as followers of the way of Jesus, we are called to walk Jesus' walk. We are called as agents of justice to the nations -- not just to our own nation, and certainly not just for our own family and friends. God's servants don't break the bruised reed; we are called to lives of nonviolence. God's servants don't quench a dimly burning wick; our manner of living in the world should empower those the powers of this world -- the powers that keep people poor, sick, uneducated, marginalized -- would extinguish.
And something I really want to concentrate on this week: We are called to release prisoners -- and I write that in country with one of the highest proportions of its citizens behind bars. In the U.S., while crime rates have been falling, rates of incarceration have been rising dramatically. One of 138 U.S. citizens is behind bars. Those statistics are much higher for racial and ethnic minorities, and while they're rising dramatically across the board, they're rising for women twice as fast as they are for men (and these statistics are based on those from the government's Bureau of Justice Statistics -- hardly a bunch of wild-eyed leftists). In other words, the way of God's servants -- the way of Jesus, and the way to which we commit those we baptize -- runs counter to the way of our world, of our rulers, and sometimes of our friends and neighbors.
That's a hard thing. And I think about that every time I see a child baptized. We want our children to be successful, but we are called to the way of Jesus, who found his greatest victories confronting the powers that oppressed demoniacs -- that is, people cast out of society because of their antisocial behavior -- dining with prostitutes and tax collectors, and hanging on a Roman cross as a slave condemned for treason. How can we help them swim against the cultural tide that wants to turn “Jesus” into a code name for abiding by that Protestant work ethic and following the rules, for country as much as for God, for respectability, for privilege, for cultural hegemony?
We don't have a prayer helping our children with this unless we've made a practice of prayer in our own lives, unless we're intentional about making our homes as well as our churches communities of spiritual formation. Perhaps it's needless to say, but I'll say it anyway: our children are observant. They can tell when we're trotting out Jesus' name or claims about “biblical values” solely when it seems to be convenient to keep them in line. A lot of people want to talk about Jesus' and Christianity's uniqueness when it lets them diss other religions, and I'll be the first person to say that anyone who thinks that all religions are basically the same probably haven't studied any of them very closely. But think of it this way -- no parent I've met of any religion wants their children to be smoking, drinking heavily and/or doing illegal drugs, and be having sex outside of wedlock by the time they're twelve. Our kids -- if they're blessed with that much sense, and in my experience, most are -- know darn well that Jesus' way is not primarily about refraining from those things, any more than it's about saying a little prayer to get into heaven. Especially by the time they're teenagers, they've developed excellent b.s. detectors, and the needles on those well-tuned instruments will be jumping all over the place if we try to tell them on one hand that following Jesus is an important commitment around which they should center their lives and on the other hand that following Jesus doesn't include doing anything that wouldn't be a political asset in almost or more than half the country. If our kids have read the bible at all, or even if they've paid minimal attention when the story was read in church, they're going to know at least one fact about Jesus' life and the way to which his followers commit:
They're going to know that Jesus' way leads to the cross. Jesus was born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, the original “family values” politician, whose domestic policies sought to strengthen the nuclear family as the foundation of the empire because all of those families could produce more little soldiers to replace all those who died in bloody wars before. At Jesus' birth he was proclaimed a different kind of king: a Prince of Peace, who was for ALL nations. The degree to which that was acceptable and respectable shows in where Jesus died: on a cross, vulnerable, exposed, and -- to those whose values were of the empire and the world order which produced it -- shamed.
That's not where the story ends, though. As Christians, as followers on the way of Jesus, we believe that the God who created the universe vindicated Jesus, raising him from the dead and appointing him as the judge of nations whose powers derided his refusal to retaliate when struck. When we baptize our children, that vindication is also on their way -- being baptized into Christ's Body, they experience not only the ways in which Jesus was marginalized and persecuted, but also God's presence with them and God's vindication of Jesus' way.
That's something to rejoice in above all -- above the adorable little dresses and suits, and even above the gathering of family and friends at such an important moment. But the deep joy of God's vindication of the Christ and his Body comes into focus much more fully in light of Jesus' cross -- the cross he exhorts his followers to take up. So when I witness a Baptism, I always take a moment to take in the solemnity as well as the brightness of what's happening before me. This is a moment of tearing apart as well as bringing together -- a small sign today of the immense sweep of God's grace through the universe. God shares in the brokenness of the world, and in Christ, so do we. God is healing and reconciling the whole of Creation -- and in Christ, as we walk in Jesus' way -- so are we.
Thanks be to God!
Trinity Sunday, Year A
Please feel free to check out this sermon from a previous Trinity Sunday and this lectionary blog entry from Trinity Sunday last year if you're looking for additional inspiration. I found myself going in a rather different direction this year!
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
-- 2 Corinthians 13:13
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, a time when we celebrate especially the communion that is God's very Self, and remember the Great Commission that the risen Jesus gave us to baptize people from all nations.
But the commission Christ gave us doesn't stop there, and too often what follows is the Great Omission in the life of the church. We're called not just to baptize. We're not called to make churchgoers, people who include religion as one among many respectable civic activities. We're called to make disciples, people who really follow Jesus as Lord.
That language of lordship has fallen out of favor in a lot of circles, and I completely understand why: too many people have used it for too long to support their own agendas, ones that undermine the radical freedom which is Christ's gift to us. Case in point: the “Bush fish,” which literally enmeshes the bearer's identity as a follower of Bush in the symbol which is supposed to identify the bearer as a follower of Jesus. For that reason, I have to agree with Slactivist's observation that “this isn't quite 'the abomination that causes desolation, standing in the holy place' -- but it comes close.” I'd feel just the same about it if it was the “Kerry fish” or the “Dean fish.” I'd also feel the same way if it were an American flag, or a Canadian flag, or any other flag, embedded in the fish, and this Sunday's gospel is one reason why I've got such a problem with the idea.
In this Sunday's gospel, the risen Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That's what we mean when we confess that Jesus is Lord. And that's actually Good News, “liberty to the prisoners,” for the very reason that the confession has that troubling edge in our history. It's Good News because there are a great many people in the world who want to be lord.
You had to win, you couldn't just pass
The smartest ass at the top of the class
Your flying colours, your family tree
And all your lessons in history.
-- U2, “Please,” Pop
You know that among the nations, those whom they recognize as their the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
-- Mark 10:42
The bad news is that there's a lot of competition for the title of “lord,” and most of the candidates will enrich themselves at your expense. But those candidates haven't heard or heeded the news that they've lost the race. The position has been filled, once and for all time. And the really Good News is that the winning candidate is Jesus, the one who gave this vision as an alternative to that of the rulers of the nations:
It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant ... for the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
-- Mark 10:43-45
In other words, the Lord of all is someone whose only agenda is to serve the servants. The one to whom all power belongs is using all of that power to empower the powerless. And this one Lord is the one to whom all of our allegiance belongs. Furthermore, the Great Commission is to make disciples of all nations through baptism, in which all of us from all nations die to our former ties; from all nations, those of us who were once not a people are called as God's people, in which all barriers between Jew and Greek, American and Iraqi, fall away. We participate in national affairs as paroikoi, pilgrims who live in and among the nations, but whose baptism calls us to seek and serve Christ in others, and to serve Christ only. Putting one of the rulers of the nations in the same category as Jesus and allegiance to one nation's agenda in the same category as our citizenship in God's kingdom indicate a fundamental category confusion, a tragic mistake.
I use that phrase intentionally. New Testament texts have a name for the sort of confusion that puts “God and country” in the same category: they call it hamartia. It's a word that can mean “mistake.” Aristotle in his book on tragedy used it to refer to a particular kind of mistake, a fundamental category confusion that leads to the downfall of a great hero, like mistaking your daughter for a sacrificial lamb, or your betrayer for your most faithful friend. It's a “flaw,” as in “tragic flaw.” We don't usually translate the word as “flaw,” or even as “mistake” when it occurs in the New Testament, though; we translate it as “sin.”
But for a moment, let's look at it in an Aristotelian context as a tragic mistake, the instrument of a fall. I think that's what it is. It's a mistake, and usually an honest one from honest people who love their country and quite rightly want to work with those who work for what's right. That's what makes it so heartbreaking. Such pure and strong intention makes it easy to push that much harder, take it that much further. Just enough awareness of what Jesus asks of us may inspire someone to believe that following the way of the Cross means that violence is inevitable, or even that the kingdom can be brought about by violence.
Your holy war, your northern star
Your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car ...
So love is hard
And love is tough
But love is not
What you're thinking of.
-- U2, “Please,” Pop
That's not it at all. The Cross doesn't belong to you, or to any of us, any more than the crown does. In religious language, Jesus' sacrifice was full, perfect, sufficient. In plain terms, if Christianity is right, then no one ever need die again because of sin, just as no one ever need follow the rulers of the nations as lord. All of that's over, and here's what remains:
God's kingdom coming, making all as it was when the world was born: lands as borderless as the skies. Humanity in the image of God, invited into communion with the God whose very Being is Triune communion. The grace of the Lord, Jesus the Christ. The love of God. The communion of the Holy Spirit. With all of us, always.
So please, get up off your knees. The risen Christ invites us to into the world bearing this Good News!
Thanks be to God.
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
That's what our gospel for Sunday reports that Jesus heard as he emerged from the waters in which he was baptized. We toss the phrase "son of God" around a lot in the church, as if we all know what it means. But what did it mean in Jesus' time?
I'm very glad to have Psalm 89 paired with Matthew 3 in this Sunday's lectionary, as Psalm 89 illustrates what I think was the primary reference point for language about a "son of God" in Jesus' time and culture, and that's King David.
Psalm 89 (verses 20-29) presents God as saying:
I have found David my servant;
with my holy oil I have anointed him. ...
He will say to me, "You are my Father,
my god, and the rock of my salvation."
I will make him my firstborn
and higher than the kings of the earth.
I will keep my love for him for ever,
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
I will establish his line for ever
and his throne as the days of heaven.
That image of the relationship between God and David being like one between a father and a son caught on in a big way, to the point where David became the archetypal "son of God" in many people's minds. The phrase didn't imply that there was anything unusual in the way David was conceived, and it certainly didn't imply that David was God. While we confess in the Nicene Creed that Jesus was born of a virgin (however you're inclined to interpret the word -- the Greek word parthenos doesn't mean what we tend to mean when we say "virgin") and is "true God from true God," those things were almost certainly not part of the cluster of meanings surrounding the phrase "son of God" in Jesus' time. Indeed, the things that were most prominent in how the earliest Jewish Christians viewed the term "son of God" have fallen too much by the wayside in popular Christianity today, and I'd like to recover more of the richness of the earliest confessions that Jesus was anointed (and Christ is the Greek word meaning, "anointed") as David (Psalm 89:20) was, and is "son of God" as David (Psalm 89:26) is.
A lot of what is implied in calling someone a "son of God" stems from a son's status as one who inherits the family name, the family honor, and the family's estate or business, and whose call includes building up all of these.
In Jesus' culture, family members share the family honor; the son of a great man is automatically great, and the father of a son who behaves shamefully is shamed right along with the son. Insult either one of them and you insult both. In Jesus' culture, the saying "like father, like son" is not just an observation about family resemblance; it describes the equation of honor between the two.
In Jesus' culture, because sons inherited the family trade and any family land, they literally had a stake in the family business. When the sons do well, they serve essentially as their parents' social security, their only means to a decent retirement should they make it to old age. When the father does well, the sons' wealth increases with the fortunes of the family.
Because of all of these things, sons were recognized as agents of their fathers. Because they share their father's name, a good son can act in that name and with that authority. After all, the family name -- good or bad -- is their name. The family honor -- or the family shame -- is their honor or shame. The family business is their business. In this sense, when we say that Jesus is God's son, we are making a claim for and about Jesus. We're saying that Jesus has authority to act in God's name. We're saying that God is honored by our honoring Jesus. And we're saying that Jesus' activity is Jesus' going about the family business.
That last point in particular is closely tied to something else, something vitally important that proceeds from our confession of Jesus as God's son:
When we say that Jesus is God's son, we're also making claims about God.
That's the point that was scandalous almost to the point of blasphemy for many. "Like father, like son," as they say. When we say that Jesus is God's son, going about the family business, we are saying not only that Jesus is like God; we are saying that God is like Jesus (a point that was well inculcated in me by S. Scott Bartchy, my Ph.D. supervisor). We are saying that what Jesus did -- his feasting indiscriminately with Pharisees and sinners alike, his free association with "loose" (unattached) women and taking them into his inner circle as disciples, his refusal to defend his own honor or his families by retaliating, even to the point of his death on a cross -- was God's business on earth. Indeed, we're saying that the best framework through which we can interpret what God's business on earth looks like is Jesus' behavior.
To those who find Jesus' behavior shameful, saying that Jesus is God's son is shaming God. To those of us who gladly receive the grace of his fellowship, his healing, and his call to us, saying that Jesus is God's son is the best news there is.
As they say in t.v. ads, though: But wait! There's more! In Christ, as our preface for the Incarnation in our service of the Eucharist says (BCP, p. 387), we receive power to become God's children.
In other words, God's business on earth is "Yahweh and Sons" (and daughters, of course!). As God's children, we are co-heirs with Christ. God's business is our business, and carrying out that business in the style of our elder brother Jesus is among the chief ways we honor God. As God's children, God's compassion and God's mission are at the core of our truest and deepest identity.
That's why I love an exhortation that landed in my email inbox (after a long chain of forwards, I'm sure) from Rabbi Steven Folberg of Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas. Folberg encourages us to pray for the victims of the tsunami disaster in countries around the Indian Ocean -- but only after we have acted, donating what we can to help, so that "the reality of your actions lift the word of your prayers." So please, for our family honor as God's children, for the family welfare, which suffers for every member whose life and gifts we lose, for the sake of Jesus', whose self-giving showed us what God's business on earth is really about, help the suffering. And then pray. The prayer Folberg quotes, distributed by the Union for Reform Judaism, is profound:
On this Shabbat, we begin telling the saga of our people's Exodus from Egypt, our journey from slavery to freedom, from servitude to covenant.
We recall that moment of deliverance at the Sea of Reeds when we miraculously passed through the waters, yet witnessed the watery death of others. Rather than rejoice at our own survival, we are taught to hear the cries of the victims; God silenced the angels who would celebrate the survival of the Israelites, proclaiming "The work of My hands is drowning in the sea."
As we gather this Shabbat, we remember the loss of tens of thousands of God's children killed this week in the Asian Tsunamis. We pray that the survivors find strength and comfort. We pray that those who search for missing loved ones be sustained with courage and hope. We pray that those who have lost so much have the fortitude to rebuild their lives. Loving and gracious God, who created the earth in all its fullness, grant them comfort, healing and peace. Be their help, in this, their time of need.
God's children will not grow faint or be crushed until justice is established in the earth. The coastlands wait for God's teaching, for God's children to do God's business (Isaiah 42:4). Amen, and thanks be to God, who gives us power to become God's children, going about the family business.
Second Sunday of Easter, Year C
John 20:19-31 - link to NRSV text
The Second Sunday of Easter is always the Sunday of Thomas "the twin," sometimes called "doubting Thomas." At St. Martin's, where I work, it's also a day when we baptize children, so as I prepare to preach, I find myself reflecting on the connection between the Baptismal Covenant and this Sunday's gospel, in particular Jesus' statement, "Blessed are those who have not seen and who have come to believe."
In many ways, it's a puzzling statement. It certainly goes against some modernist sensibilities. A lot of the scientific quests of the 20th century seem predicated on the assumption, "blessed are you who, because you won't settle for somebody else's word for it, finally see for yourself." Some (though not all) scholars examining the historical Jesus -- what can be demonstrated with current evidence as most plausibly coming from Jesus of Nazareth before his crucifixion -- speak of their quest in "blessed are those who see for themselves" kinds of terms, as they talk about trying to get behind the stories early Christian communities told to something else, something behind them, something closer to "truth."
I don't think there's anything wrong with historical Jesus scholarship as an enterprise. I think it's of historical value, and can be of value for Christians and Christianity as well. At the very least, I find it's often useful to be able to make a very solid historical argument that there actually was a person named Jesus of Nazareth who lived in the first century C.E. But I don't think (and most historical Jesus scholars would agree with me) that trying to get somehow beyond Christian community is going to help (or, for that matter, hurt) much if what you want is to encounter the risen Jesus for yourself.
If you want to meet the risen Christ, I'd suggest hanging out where he hangs out. Invest compassion as well as time and treasure with those with whom Christ suffers today. Find a stranger on the road you can invite to break bread with you and your fellow travelers. Listen deeply for Christ's voice where two or three are gathered in his name. In short, don't rely solely on books, or even on solitary prayer to find Jesus. Connect with Christ in community. Thomas was absolutely sure of one thing before he saw the risen Jesus for himself. He knew that if Jesus was alive, Jesus would be seen in the flesh.
That hasn't changed. We still encounter Jesus in the flesh. We might not see him with our eyes, but we've got something in common with Thomas: the surest way for us to encounter the risen Jesus, and to know him as Lord and God is by touching (and being touched by) Christ's Body.
And that brings me back to baptism and our Baptismal Covenant. We can't live the life of the baptized outside of community, without other human beings with whom we can form relationships of justice, whom we can love, whom we can forgive, and from whom we can receive what Christ wants to give -- the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. I love to hear conviction in the congregation's cry of "We will!" in our vow to support the baptized as they live into the covenant they've made, or their parents have made on their behalf. Our journey isn't always easy; Jesus' call is as much in tension with our culture as it was in first-century Palestine. The new disciples will need our support. And we need theirs. We need all of the gifts, the creativity, and even the wounds of Christ's Body to know life in Christ.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
The Baptism of Our Lord
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22 - link to NRSV text
Once more, I'm preaching this coming Sunday, so I'd like to offer a slightly different angle on the readings than I'll be taking in my sermon, and I invite you to take a look at my sermons page next Monday to see how I dealt with the readings from the pulpit.
For now, I'd like to say a word about John the Baptizer and his relationship with Jesus. I'm very much in debt on my thinking about this to Robert L. Webb, who was one of my professors at divinity school in the University of St. Andrews during my studies for my master's degree.
Now I don't want you to panic, but there's a mistranslated word in Luke 3:17. Instead of saying that John proclaimed that the mighty one he expected to come had a "winnowing fork" in his hand, it should be a "winnowing shovel."
Believe it or not, that's important. It gets at what was the primary source of tension between Jesus and John, a tension that we see come to a head in Luke 7:18-23. John expected that God was going to send someone not with a winnowing fork, but with a shovel. A winnowing fork was used to separate the wheat (i.e., the good stuff) from the chaff (i.e., the useless stuff). Once the harvesters had separated the wheat from the chaff, they would take their winnowing shovels and literally save the grain, which was good, and shovel the chaff, which was useless, into the fire to be destroyed. John was waiting for someone to come as an instrument of salvation for the righteous and destruction for the unrighteous.
Jesus only delivered half of what John expected. Jesus came for salvation, and if passages like Matthew 5:43-47 are any indication, Jesus didn't seem to discriminate between wheat and chaff, but he treated everyone — the righteous and the unrighteous — as precious. Furthermore, Jesus claimed that it was in this very indiscriminate behavior that he was living out his instruction to "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect."
That kind of behavior wouldn't win a teacher much applause in Jesus' culture. I'm a person who enjoys applause, and I can hardly begin to imagine the kind of inner strength it would take to be as wholly and relentlessly loving as Jesus is in the face of the kind of approbation and persecution Jesus got in return. But what I see in Jesus' deeds as well as in his words is that he was someone who was so deeply in touch with his own status as God's beloved child that he was completely freed to love others as he knew his father loved them. There was no hint of sibling rivalry from Jesus our brother; knowing the Father as he did, Jesus knew that God's infinite love for him was in no way diminished or overshadowed by infinite love for another.
I've never seen real persecution in my life, though I know there are many others around the world who have experienced it firsthand. I sometimes get pretty whiny about the challenges I do find in my life, though, about the occasions on which I feel "dissed" as I try to follow Jesus' example. But when I'm really, deeply in touch with how much God loves me, there's a deep compassion for others, even or especially those doing the dissing, that arises alongside of the sense of God's love for me. When I'm registering what someone is saying to me as disrespectful, I take a look at whether I'm experiencing that kind of compassion for the person speaking. That compassion, or its absence, works for me as a kind of barometer to measure whether my sense that I'm not getting the respect I deserve is springing from a prideful sense of entitlement or out of a real, healthy, and humbling sense of the worthiness God whispered to me in baptism. My impression is that a sense of worthiness that comes from God is accompanied by compassion.
And it's important to me to do what it takes to keep in touch with those whom, in my whiniest moments, I'd like to see some coming Mighty One treat as chaff. Whatever instinct in me wants to make distinctions between us, I have a feeling we're all going to be hanging out together at the harvest, flopping on the threshing floor to make grain/chaff angels in the undifferentiated abundance around us. Let us play!